We music fans of today are lucky. For the past 35 years or so, we’ve had Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band around to raise our spirits, give us hope, and bring us together, a few thousand at a time, to celebrate the notion that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
With the death of founding organist Danny Federici last year of melanoma, and both Clarence Clemons and Nils Lofgren tottering around on artificial hips - and Bruce himself nearing 60 - we can no longer pretend this amazing rock ‘n’ roll party is never going to end. So let’s take a moment to appreciate this remarkable band as it heads to San Jose to kick off its world tour on Wednesday.
Still working on a dream with Bruce and the E Streeters
I’ll drop my pretense of journalistic objectivity for today. After all, they did put on the greatest rock ‘n’ roll show I’ve ever seen: Dec. 11, 1984, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I should have been there on the “Darkness” tour, catching him at Winterland, yadda yadda yadda. Believe me, I’ve heard the bootlegs. But for a 14-year-old kid from the suburban edge of the boonies, this show was more than enough.
The opening “one, two, three, four!” that kicked off “Born in the USA” gave me goose bumps from head to toe, and by the time he was leading a joyous dance for 20,000 from atop Roy Bittan’s piano to “Twist and Shout,” I was ready to devote my life to rock ‘n’ roll. Or, at the very least, rock criticism.
I caught them again three years later on the “Tunnel of Love” tour, but ambivalent songs about love and marriage weren’t meant for a horny, hyper 17-year-old, and the slow version of “Born to Run” sounded like a retreat, a surrender. And Patti Scialfa, the backup singer who’d mostly stayed in the background on the previous tour, was moving front and center. Heck, she got more time in the spotlight than Clarence!
So it wasn’t a shock when Springsteen slept with the singer and both his first marriage and the band broke up.
Bruce left the E Street Band with the promise of exploring new directions and being challenged by new musicians, rather than this mere “bar band,” as some condescendingly call them. Not a terrible idea on paper. But instead of breaking new ground, he called up the drummer from Toto and the man who would become the fat judge on “American Idol” and put out the least ambitious recordings of his career: the underwhelming “Lucky Town” and the pop-soul abomination “Human Touch,” for which Springsteen manager Jon Landau’s producing privileges were revoked forever.
He put a touring band together and hit the road, but it didn’t work - commercially or artistically. Watching Bruce and his L.A. hired guns play “Atlantic City” on the desultory “MTV Plugged” show today (you can find it on YouTube) is an unsettling experience. He abandoned his Jersey brothers for this?
It wasn’t so much that it was bad music. It was just, somehow, ordinary. And ordinary was never acceptable for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. This was the band that set out to take over the world every single night, with epic shows designed to embody every facet of American rock ‘n’ roll.
By the mid-1990s Springsteen was on the verge of just fading away, becoming an irrelevant old-timer. Instead, he did a very wise thing: He got the band back together. And not coincidentally, that’s about the time Bruce began moving back to the forefront of American culture, where he belongs.
At first it was just to record a few new songs for a greatest-hits compilation. Then in 1999 Bruce and the band made a triumphant return to the road, and in 2002 they went into the studio to make the post-Sept. 11 album “The Rising.” And the record made a bigger impact than anything he’d done since the last E Street Band album, “Born in the USA,” 18 years earlier.
Things weren’t exactly the same - Bruce no longer had the burning need to wring every bit of life out of the crowds and the band every night. He now had a life: a wife and three kids, as the presence of the Mrs. singing beside him on stage constantly reminded. Bruce’s best friend, Steven Van Zandt, was back on guitar, along with his ‘80s replacement Nils Lofgren - the band’s greatest virtuoso. Drummer Max Weinberg was more mighty than ever - no drummer has ever locked in any better with his lead singer.
These days, Springsteen can go off and do a stripped-down “Devils and Dust” or folk it up with the Sessions Band without threatening the E Street Band. Breaking up now is inconceivable. The long illness and ultimate death of Federici last year hammered it home: This is real. Time is short.
After 20 years of admiring Springsteen from a distance, I’m once again a Bruce Tramp in good standing. The shows last year were as close to that 14-year-old’s joyous experience as any grown-up has a right to expect. With wife Scialfa home with the kids, Springsteen was particularly loosey-goosey and carefree. In Sacramento, instead of pushing the new product, he opened the show with “Spirit in the Night,” a song that dates back to the birth of the E Street Band, dangling his nether regions off the front of the stage into the crowd where the female fans gleefully copped feels.
All night long in Sacramento and then in San Jose, the band took requests, nobody exactly sure where things would go next but confident the Boss would get everyone home in one piece.
This time around, they’ll be presenting songs from the new “Working on a Dream,” an up-and-down album on which the E Street Band chemistry takes a back seat to experiments in pop production. It will be interesting to see how they pull off the new songs, and we’re fortunate to get the first glimpse.
But more than that, I’ll be at the Shark Tank to appreciate the connections among these old friends on stage. Miami Steve leaning in to sing harmony, the Funky Chicken and Mighty Max driving the unstoppable groove, the Professor laying down the piano that virtually defines the E Street sound. And the Big Man raging against his aches and pains to pull himself out of his throne to play that beautiful “Jungleland” solo one more time.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
// Notes from the Road
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